alan little’s weblog

the state of the art

4th March 2006 permanent link

what if any are the advantages of the silver halide method of recording images compared to the digital alternative? … The massive change from classical silver halide photography to solid state imagery has been completed by now and the chemical recording of images will become a tiny niche, cared for by a handful of aficionados, as is the case with the vinyl LP record.

… says Leica expert Erwin Puts in an interesting essay that I recently dug out of my to_read list. In it he talks about Leica rangefinder cameras – his great love – their place in the history of photography (the golden age of photojournalism), and the particular style and aesthetic that was built upon their use. The same sort of stuff I talked about my comments on photojournalism in the Second World War, except much better informed and more thought through.

His key point is that different tools and materials encourage different aesthetics, make different things possible in art, and this will continue to be true in the digital photography era. Shooting black & white chemical film in mechanical cameras is an anachronism, no matter how beautifully made the cameras are. There are things you can do, looks you can achieve, with Leicas, available light and black & white film that you can’t with digital – but vice versa too.

I’ve only been taking pictures seriously for ten years and have never set foot in a darkroom. (Actually, a did have a nice little Ricoh rangefinder in my early 20s and enjoyed taking pictures with it, but it got hurt on a climbing trip and didn’t get round to replacing it until many years later. That was a phase of my life when I was lost and confused in many ways.) I’m not a hoary old film photography veteran. But I did learn photography with a 35mm film SLR – my Nikon FM2 which I will never part with even when I do get around to selling, scrapping or giving away all my other film cameras. And even though I shoot nearly all digital these days, I’m still very much an SLR-mindset shooter. Which perhaps makes me a dinosaur from a previous generation too.

I do have a little digicam, a Fuji F10 which I bought because it's supposed to be one of the faster-focusing and generally more responsive small cameras, and quite good for available light photography without flash. Supposedly. I still find it frustratingly slow in the kind of fairly low light indoor situations where I usually want to take snapshots. Its six megapixel picture quality makes reasonable small prints of my son for his grandmothers, but is nowhere near even a previous generation six megapixel SLR like a D70, let alone something more state of the art like the D200. The F10 is better than nothing, but if I were willing to lug my D200 around with me everywhere I would enjoy taking pictures a lot more, and get better pictures.

This is actually a big difference from the film days, and not one that is favourable to digital. A lot of small 35mm film cameras, including the little Yashicas and Olympuses I used to use, were (are) capable in the right circumstances of producing results every bit as good as professional SLRs. They had limitations – fixed lenses, slow autofocus and general lack of control – but the lenses were just as good as SLR lenses, and of course they used exactly the same sensors as their big brothers, in the form of bits of 35mm film. In most of the circumstances where you want to carry a small camera just in case, being theoretically capable of the same image quality as an SLR isn’t particularly relevant, but I did sometimes get some pretty decent pictures with film point’n’shoots.

The problem with small digicams isn’t lens quality. Plenty of them have good lenses. Small good lenses are easier and cheaper to make than big ones, and Fuji’s ability to make excellent lenses is beyond question. But the physics of small batteries and small sensors dictate that autofocus will always be slower, and pixel-for-pixel image quality will be worse. I personally have yet to take a good picture with a small digicam.

I’m not suggesting it can’t be done, though, and that’s the whole point. Just as with the switch from rangefinder to SLR photography that Erwin Puts writes about, there will be people who create marvellous pictures that take advantage of the strengths of small digital cameras, and that will have an aesthetic of their own that is different from the era of 35mm SLR photography. Alex Majoli, who won Photojournalist Of The Year 2004 using Olympus digicams, might be one of those people.

(There are other things too about the new digital world that aren’t improvements – everything has its trade-offs. We’re too dependent now on expensive, fragile, battery-hungry electronic gadgets compared to the days when all the storage and electricity you needed was a bag of film and a tiny little battery for the lightmeter that you had to remember to change every couple of years. But the places where those things are an advantage don’t feature prominently at the moment in my life as a responsible husband-and-father – the days of journeys by bus and motorbike around rural India, and week long hikes in the Arizona desert, are behind me for the time being. Pity. I can see the D200 making a lovely job of red dust-haze Deccan twilight.)

UPDATE: Steve Crandall has a friend who is a professional fashion and ad photographer, who says he is more creative and has more fun with his little pocket digicam. That I am not says more about my personal prejudices and limitations than those of digicams.

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